Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Mississippi State: Inside pitch

A series on Michigan's Gator Bowl opponent. You can find all preview content on the 2011 Gator Bowl page in the sidebar.

I've spent the last week and a half breaking down Mississippi State game film and writing optimistically about why Michigan Might Win. Long story short: unsound defensive numbers, Michigan's ability to exploit blitzes, and a vulnerable looking Bulldogs offensive line. The occasional Mississippi State fan that stumbles over here invariably goes, "But Michigan sucks", I shrug and say, "Yes, I know, but maybe?" And despite all of the exploitable moments, Mississippi State still does one thing that will probably kill Michigan: they, urm, are pretty good at football.

Michigan's had trouble with option looks like the Bulldogs' all year. And given the amount of misdirection that MSU runs, Michigan is going to be in trouble unless they play incredibly disciplined and smart football. One play against Auburn in particular has given me nightmares.

MSU is in a 3x1 formation with a tight end on the weak side of the offensive line. Before the snap, the X receiver starts in motion and will run behind Chris Relf as the ball is snapped. Auburn is in a 4-3 alignment, possibly with their nickelback on the field shaded over the slot receiver.

On the snap, the X receiver is directly behind Relf. The tight end (#32 Marcus Green, red) begins to pull behind the formation. The trips receivers on the strong side of the field start upfield looking to block. The Mississippi State offensive line intentionally leaves the stronside defensive end unblocked.

This is a great shot of the triple option: you can clearly see the TE Green, Relf, and RB Vick Ballard swinging around to the strongside of the field. The Auburn defensive end has started upfield to attack Relf and Ballard, completely unaware that Green is pulling across the formation on the triple option. Auburn's playside linebacker also didn't see Green coming across the field, and MSU's right tackle is releasing to the second level to block the weakside linebacker.

The playside defensive end and linebacker effectively have the Relf/Ballard option wrapped up in the backfield but never recognized Green on the triple option. Down the field, the right tackle is blocking the weakside linebacker, the trips receivers are either engaged downfield or headed toward safeties, and the right guard is releasing to the second level to block someone downfield as well.

Green has caught the ball and has nothing but blockers and turf ahead of him. The playside linebacker has overpursued the play trying to thwart the option in the backfield. This won't go for a touchdown, but it goes for a fair amount of yards.

What does it mean?
Argh, terrible linebacker play, poor play recognition, safeties having to come downfield to make tackles. This play is basically a microcosm of everything that's bad about Michigan's defense this year. If Mississippi State pulls out a bunch of this type of misdirection plays, Michigan's defense is probably sunk. That is unless Mouton and Demens are perpetually in the film room from now until January 1. For Michigan, defending plays like this will very likely come down to film study/preparation and avoiding mental mistakes. It'll also be important for Kovacs, Cam Gordon, and Vinopal to come downhill and make plays.

If this was one play in the Mississippi State arsenal, I'd feel more confident (e.g., zone read plays in Ohio State's playbook). Unfortunately, this sort of play is the Bulldogs' offense, which means we're probably going to see a pretty high variance of defensive results: Demens and Mouton will probably make a lot of impressive plays, but there are also going to be a fair amount that get broken for significant yardage (like the one above) because of a single mental lapse. Being disciplined and knowing where your help defense is will be crucial, as will not overpursuing like the Auburn linebacker.

Also, you're welcome for the nightmare fuel.


Furious Blue said...

Dooooooom. DOOOOOOOOM!
(and maybe a little gloom too)

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